Langdell and the Invention of Legal Doctrine
USC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-37
69 Pages Posted: 11 Sep 2009 Last revised: 22 Aug 2010
Date Written: May 2010
This paper addresses two related questions.
The first relates to Langdell and his development of a doctrinal theory of contract law. The substance and method of Langdell’s work has not been well understood and this paper uses a variety of historical materials to remedy this problem. It begins with a review of contract law prior to Langdell. Contract law at this time was in a very primitive state. The available treatises were confusing and the cases themselves offered little guidance for predicting future case outcomes. The paper then proceeds to examine Langdell’s method by describing certain logic texts that describe the Nineteenth Century conception of scientific methodology. This enables us to recreate not only the substance of Langdell’s theory, but also its method. Further, understanding its method allows us to ask crucial questions about justification: What is it that makes Langdell believe that his theory of contract law is correct?
The second question addressed in this paper relates to legal theory and the use of doctrinal theories in legal decision making. As a pragmatist, I reject the idea that there is one form of legal reasoning. Instead I believe that the courts employ a variety of strategies to navigate between the demand for justice in the individual case and the need to develop general theories that can be used to predict future decisions. Doctrinal theories are one of these strategies and, without question, a very important one. In the final section I use what we have learned about Langdell to identify the way in which doctrinal theories work and to explain their success.
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